Writing to Discover What We Know

magnifier-keyboard-25318648The title of this post is borrowed from the famous quote by Flannery O’Connor, “I write to discover what I know.”

It is one of the truly mysterious pieces of the writing process that through it I come to know my own mind better. Each successive rewrite seems to take me deeper, closer to the reality of what is happening between my characters, and within my story. It is almost as if the story exists independently of me and I am only trying to get good at listening, so that I can hear what is really happening and transcribe it.

A couple of weeks ago, there was a quote on the back of our Agile Writers Meeting Agenda by Albert Einstein that reads “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

I am constantly bumping up against my own limited understanding. My need for a more precise, but unknown, word for something. The changing landscape of my characters, my shifting skill level in writing them, the limits of my memory of the whole tapestry of my novel. The amount of time I have to dedicate to writing, the quality of that time. All the messages I have received about writing, the creeping doubts that many of them engender.

Each of these is a limitation. I operate within these limitations to craft a story which is concerned with truth—capitol ‘T’ Truth. Because only a Truth bigger than myself could resonate with someone else. Each pass of the cursor hopefully renders me one step closer to conveying what it is I truly mean to say. (Of course, as with everything, my ability to dig deeper ebbs and flows.)

I stretch these horizons in a number of ways. For one, I have the eyes of my Agile Writers critique partners, whose steady gaze and constant feedback keeps me from becoming permanently lost in a wilderness of my own making. Another is the support of my reading—both that which is directly related to the craft of writing, and to the themes my novel embodies, and that which more broadly inspires me or simply introduces me to new vocabulary, expressions and sensibilities.

Most incomprehensibly, the act of writing itself seems to stretch my own abilities and understandings. I arrange my fingers on the keys and worlds of intuition open within me, knowledge and images and words I hadn’t known were in my possession, emerge to take their proper places on the page.

It seems that, like all true relationships, the one between writer and novel changes both of them through the ongoing process of relating. Maybe the best we can hope for our writing is that it will not only connect us to others, but connect us to ourselves as well.

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Writer’s Block

writers-block-01When words abandon a writer, it can feel catastrophic. But, it happens to all of us—the professional and the amateur, the published and the unpublished, the new and the seasoned. The question is how do we treat this most devastating of writing ailments?

Firstly, we must establish that writer’s block exists. There is some controversy over this. According to Anne Lamott, writer’s block is a “definite, not a maybe.” She believes in it for the best possible reason—personal experience. I’m of a mind to close the argument here. If you haven’t experienced Writer’s Block, then this post isn’t for you. Everyone else, stay tuned.

There are those who view “Writer’s Block” as a misnomer, though. John Rogers states succinctly, “you can’t think yourself out of a writing block; you have to write yourself out of a thinking block.” And then there’s Jeffrey Deaver, who says, “there’s no such thing as writer’s block; the problem is idea block. When I find myself frozen[. . .]it’s usually because I’m trying to shoehorn an idea into the passage or story where it has no place.”

I’m partial to these Idea Block explanations, but I don’t think they cover every possible cause of writer’s block. It’s true that sometimes we get stuck because we’re headed in the wrong direction. But sometimes we get stuck because we’re afraid, burned-out or disconnected.

But, I’m more interested in the solution than delineating the causes of Writer’s Block. What can we do about it? How do we prevent it, treat it, and recover from it?

Here, I stand on the shoulders of giants. The two most dear to my heart are Steven Pressfield, author of The War of Art, and Julia Cameron, author of the classic The Artist’s Way. Each in their own way, these writers handed me the tools to understand and combat my own Writer’s Block—in all its many changing iterations. I will not do justice to either of their far-reaching wisdom on this subject, so I strongly encourage you to pick up their books for yourself.

These two greats share one basic piece of advice for combatting Writer’s Block: write every day. Steven Pressfield calls this “Turning Pro”—viewing our writing as a duty, showing up and punching the clock in front of our laptops everyday, no matter what our circumstances are. Pressfield admits that Turning Pro will cause us to meet with great Resistance—which he defines as an impersonal force in the universe that moves against any creative endeavor. But, Turning Pro is the antidote to Resistance. It creates the conditions for facing and transcending our fears. And all forms of Writer’s Block—boredom, frustration, fatigue, etc—are just Fear in its many disguises.

Cameron gives the same advice as part of her tool kit for overcoming Writer’s Block, only she uses different terminology. Cameron tasks aspiring creatives to write Morning Pages—three long-hand, free-form pages, every day. Writing Morning Pages clears the junk out of your brain. It puts you in daily contact with your subconscious. It teaches you to “rest on the page.” In other words, you learn to produce work no matter the circumstances. Even if that work is terrible and only a means to writing the real thing you want to write. Even if you throw it away and no one ever sees it. You write every day.

Cameron couples this task of Morning Pages with two more tasks to combat the dreaded Writer’s Block. One she terms Artist’s Dates—weekly solo excursions in the name of play. Take yourself to a movie, a park, a fabric store, a new part of town. . . whatever. Just feed your senses. Once a week. No companions and no agendas. This gives your brain new raw material and trains the mind to pay attention to the world deeply.

Lastly, she promotes walking as a means of combatting Writer’s Block. If all else fails and you are blocked, take a walk. The physical movement will shift your thinking brain off and your intuitive brain on, and the ideas can suddenly reach you again.

I have used all of these methods to maintain a steady level of productivity in my writing for the last year. I subscribe to them all. There is much to be said for small acts of perseverance.

I leave you with this quote from Goethe, “Whatever you think you can do or believe you can do, begin it. Action has magic, grace and power in it.” The power to dissolve Writer’s Block, no less.

Developing Secondary Characters

group-people-silhouetteThe Agile Writers approach to writing a novel focuses clearly around the hero figure and their story. But, the more you step into the world of your hero, the more you recognize the need for fully developed secondary characters.

The hero can only have as much depth as his or her world, after all. So, while deliberate strategies for fleshing out secondary characters are not built into the Agile Writer method currently, we had a lively discussion around this topic at a recent meeting. Some important quandaries emerged from our discussion:

How do you develop your secondary characters? How do you create a compelling Villain or Enemy of your Hero? How do you ensure that the Villain doesn’t “steal the show” and become the most interesting character in your book? How do you create a Hero that evokes emotional investment on the part of the reader? When is the appropriate time in the writing process to attend to developing the secondary characters?

The Storyboarding process at Agile Writers is already very thorough and takes most writers between two and four months to complete. Adding more work on the front-end of the writing process might cross over into unhelpfulness at some point. After all, people come to the group because they want to write, not spend forever planning. New writers could easily lose steam if it takes too long to get to the writing process itself.

For me, the issue of developing my secondary characters came up organically in the early days of writing my second draft. I was happy with the plot of my novel, but felt like some depth was still lacking. The story needed more voices, perspectives and subplots. I wanted it to feel richer, more vivid, more compelling, and easier for a reader to become immersed in.

The solution, for me, was focusing more attention on some of my secondary characters, especially the Villain. Much of my story up to that point was told from the vantage point of my hero. After all, it is her story. But she seemed too self-aware too early in the novel. I needed the perspectives of other characters to communicate some things about my hero that maybe she didn’t even recognize about herself.

Part of creating an amply flawed hero is the limitations that this necessarily sets on the character’s understanding, especially in the first half to 2/3 of the novel. They have a somewhat flat perspective at times because of their own, very necessary, limitations. You need other characters to fill in the picture for the reader. Otherwise, you err on the side of an omniscient hero, who “knows too much too soon” or a novel that lacks richness because of the main character’s limitations.

The first scenario, where the hero is too savvy too soon, results in a terribly flat character arch. There’s no room for the hero to grow if they are already so wise at the beginning of the story.

The second danger, a novel lacking richness because of the hero’s limited perspective, makes for a boring book. The reader quickly tires of the hero’s limited scope. They may put the book down because of its lack of sophistication.

As for how to create compelling characters, we agreed on a few key ingredients. Backstories are imperative. Show where your characters come from to give us a sense of who they are. Also, complicate them. Perfect angels and inhumane devils are boring characters. You need a hero with flaws and a villain with some admirable qualities, even if they are destructive and have ill-intentions. It is also important, we all agreed, to keep the hero as the most compelling character of the story. The reader is following the hero’s journey. It’s their growth, their motivations that are the engine behind your plot.

As for the timing, I found the start of my first macro-editing to be the perfect time to revisit my secondary characters and give them some depth. I already had a plot that was entirely motivated by my hero’s journey, so there was no danger of the arch of the story getting muddied by secondary characters. And I had learned enough about the secondary characters through writing my first draft that I could easily flesh out their backstories and personalities.

But, everyone’s writing process is a little different. How have you handled rounding out secondary characters?

Drafting 1, 2, 3 . . .

AWdeskI have recently begun the second draft of my Agile Writers novel. For some, it seems, the second draft is a breeze. They go through and plug in the edits they got from their wonderful critique partners, humming along and spitting out fifteen or twenty pages a week.

This has not been my experience. I have had a very difficult time with rewriting. Somehow it seems more challenging than the initial draft in many ways. Two quotes about the creative process have come to mind for me at this stage:

“Get through a draft as quickly as possible. Hard to know the shape of the thing until you have a draft. Literally, when I wrote the last page of my first draft of Lincoln’s Melancholy I thought, Oh, sh*t, now I get the shape of this. But I had wasted years, literally years, writing and re-writing the first third to first half. The old writer’s rule applies: have the courage to write badly.” – Joshua Wolf Shenk, writer

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.” – Ira Glass, radio personality, host and producer

It is so interesting that different parts of the process call on different skills and strengths and so come more or less easily to different writers. It is too easy to look back at my work in this first rewrite and see that there is so much improvement still to be made and then get discouraged. These two quotes help me to see past that initial discouragement. In a way, the fact that I still think the writing needs a lot of work is the first step toward better writing. I cannot correct for mistakes of which I am not aware.

The second draft comes with unique challenges. The insights and ideas that came to me part way through writing the first draft now have to be woven back into the earlier pages. I know my characters better, so must set them up to meet their eventual ends with greater clarity. The larger ideas are all there. Rendering them in the minutiae of each page and paragraph is the challenge.

I am so grateful, again, for the Weekly Check-In and Critique Sessions—two Agile Writers tools that keep me moving forward. Without the supportive environment of Agile Writers I am afraid that the start of the second draft would be the place that finally breaks me. Renders me paralyzed and unable to step forward. Of course, that place is different for everyone. And we always stand on the edge of another such enormous hurtle. It is the daily practice of writing that rescues us from our own grand imaginations and fears. And it is the accountability of other writers that often returns us to the keyboard day after day.